By Jason Keidel
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If there were to be a defining montage, vignette, or single snapshot of Joe Frazier, he should be in overalls, his de facto work uniform. He was seen in suspenders all the time, working a farm, pounding a heavy bag, or just skipping and sweating around a dank ring in a dark room while he prepared for a fight.
It’s the uniform of a man, blue collar to the bone, who worked as hard as any American ever has for what he has. And when boxing was an essential sport, Joe Frazier was an essential boxer. Then he faced a faceless opponent: cancer.
For such a festive sounding noun, it’s a semantic traitor. Hospice is that word. That’s where Joe Frazier, champion, icon, and toughness nonpareil was fighting his final round. Advanced liver cancer, they said.
Actually, it is Les Wolff, his manager, who said it. I know Les, and Les loved Joe Frazier. Who wouldn’t? Frazier’s guile is matched only by his gratitude, the quintessential pugilist’s paradox, full of fury between the ropes and refreshingly genteel on the street.
I interviewed Frazier for WFAN.com on March 8, the 40th anniversary of the “Fight of the Century.” Frazier accorded me every courtesy possible, his hoarse voice reflecting his muscular spirit. According to a report in the Philadelphia Daily News, Wolff was planning to haul Frazier to Russia for experimental treatments, which sounded like a few, perfunctory punches thrown by a defeated fighter. And instead of a referee stepping in to end the contest, a higher power called it off.
Frazier, 67, was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1970 until 1973: a time when being the baddest man on the planet still meant something. And Smokin’ Joe was indeed a badass. Many of you don’t know that he did this while legally blind in one eye since he won an Olympic gold medal in 1964. Imagine if he had two eyes on the prize.
It’s impossible to ponder Frazier without mentioning Muhammad Ali, Frazier’s physical and metaphysical inverse and eternal tormentor. You know they fought three times, a savage, fistic trilogy that made Yankees-Red Sox seem like a senior prom.
Those fights defined both men, but for mostly the wrong reasons. Despite the fact that Frazier floated money to Ali while “The Greatest” was banned from boxing between 1967 and ’70, and even petitioned the sport to reinstate Ali’s boxing license, Ali repaid Frazier with gratuitous – and grotesque – insults that belied sportsmanship, gamesmanship, and civility. Ali repeatedly and publicly called Frazier stupid, an Uncle Tom, and a gorilla, even stuffing a doll resembling the mammal in his breast pocket, from which he plucked and punched the toy with every punch line.
Whenever they fought, the ring morphed into a voting booth on social issues – race, class, war, etc., when the sheer brilliance of their boxing skills required no preamble. Frazier, known for his generosity, and even pulling off a road to help someone whose car has sputtered onto the shoulder, didn’t respond to Ali’s insults outside the ring. He literally let his punches do the talking. Later in life, Frazier (understandably) shot back, unable to seal his searing resentment toward a man who, for a decade, painted Frazier in unconscionable stereotypical tones. Ali never apologized to Frazier in person, using various conduits to offer oblique contrition.
Ali taunted many of his opponents, but none with the bile he directed at Frazier. And no one other than Ali knows why. To paraphrase Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s fight doctor, there wasn’t a blacker man in America than Frazier, thus italicizing the irony of Ali’s comments. Frazier, who was literally darker than Ali, was also poorer, raised in the aorta of the segregated South (S. Carolina), a sharecropper’s son who shared a shack with a dozen siblings. Yet Ali constantly claimed that anyone who rooted for Frazier was the enemy of all blacks. The epic bouts should have bonded the men forever. Instead, it stretched an emotional chasm that was never closed.
In a strictly sporting sense, they were equals. Frazier battered Ali in 1971, the aforementioned Fight of the Century, flooring the undefeated Ali in the fifteenth round to cement the victory. Ali won the next (and far less dramatic fight, in 1974, as there was no title on the line), which led to the famed rubber match in the Philippines, in 1975.
The final fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” far more notable for its brutality than boxing acumen, was as violent as a violent sport can get. They assaulted each other in unbearable heat for 14 rounds. Frazier’s corner, more specifically his legendary trainer Eddie Futch, forbade Frazier from entering the final round. Already sightless in one eye and the other closed by Ali’s punches, Futch was more interested in saving Frazier’s life than winning a fight. It was the noble thing to do, even if Frazier hated him for it.
Ali said that was the closest he ever felt to death. Indeed, some ringside witnesses said Ali won with more happenstance than superiority, asserting that Ali limped to his corner after the 14th round, moaning, “Cut ‘em off,” meaning his gloves. “I’m done.” (Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, disputes this, but Dundee also said Ali won their first fight, when he clearly didn’t.)
If the story is true, then Frazier’s corner just happened to toss in the towel a few seconds sooner. Imagine how our history books would read had Ali’s towel landed first; each icon’s past, future, and legacy shaped by a nanosecond.
Both men should have retired in 1975, as no mortal could thrive after that fight. And Frazier did quit the sport, enjoying a lucid life, training fighters and forming a music group, with “Mustang Sally” being one of his favorite covers. Yet only Ali was worshipped, while Frazier lived in a small room in the dingy gym bearing his name, where he trained for his fights, in a Philadelphia ghetto known as “The Badlands.” The cliché about history’s cruelness can use Joe Frazier as Exhibit A.
There are too many sad ironies in Frazier’s professional life when juxtaposed with his innate decency. Indeed, he’s better known for his 4 losses than his 32 wins. “Down Goes Frazier!” was Howard Cosell’s resonant call when George Foreman pummeled Frazier in Jamaica in 1973. Lost in the shouting is the fact that Frazier lost only to Ali and Foreman over his entire pro career. He was the first to defeat Ali, and he wore the title belt far longer than Foreman did. He was the only American boxer to win gold in ’64, and 27 of his 32 pro victims were knocked out. Frazier was a legitimate, dominant champion long before boxing’s best athletes defected for football and other team sports.
Last week I wrote that the rancor between Ali and Frazier would haunt them until they died. I had no idea that day would come for one so soon.
Some will say an important part of a particular sport died with Joe Frazier. That’s correct, but incomplete. A part of America died with him. Few fighters were better than Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and even fewer men.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com